The satan literally means “the accuser.” Considering Jesus labelled the satan a liar and a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44), one could expand on this a bit and describe the satan as a slanderer. Other definitions include, but are probably not limited to, “the adversary,” “the tempter,” “the executioner,” and even “God’s prosecuting attorney.” Nevertheless, it is primarily a role or a function rather than a name or a person.
I know, I know, that’s not what most of us have been taught. Indeed, we’ve no doubt heard that the satan more closely resembles a person rather than an overarching principle or something to that effect. (Using technical language, one could say he has his own ontology.) We read in the book of Job how the satan works as a field agent for the Lord. In fact, as Job 1:6 tells us, he is among the “heavenly beings;” his role being to walk around the earth and find people to levy accusations against.
So, it’s obvious, the satan is a “person,” right? And he works for God, right?
Well, hold on now. We don’t have to be so literal. Some of this, I believe, is mythology and allegory. For instance, since we find cases where God himself is seen walking on the earth—as if God the Father is a person with actual legs—do we then capriciously make sweeping ontological claims that God is a literal bipedal being? Probably not. Moreover, there is also a whole history and development of thought that goes before Job and plays into this conversation about evil and its origins, which makes this whole discussion not so cut and dried.
Let’s consider this now.
Essentially, thinking of a particular being who is the embodiment of evil began around 800 BCE, not with the ancient Hebrew people, but with this Persian dude named Zarathustra (his ideas lead to what is known as Zoroastrianism). In this tradition, two gods, nearly equal in power, are opposed against one another: the good spirit Spenta Mainyu and his twin brother Ahriman. After Israel’s exile in sixth-century BCE, some of the Jewish people picked up some of the teachings of this tradition; one of them being the idea that there indeed was a being of pure evil. In this portion of the Hebrew tradition that Christianity later picked up on, however, the Zoroastrian doctrine gets a twist: the bad god is not really a god, but a fallen angel.
We’ve all heard how this tale goes:
Satan starts off as a lovely angel. In fact, he’s God’s right-hand man. But then, as these things are wont to do, he not only rebels against God, but convinces a bunch of other angels to join him in the uprising. Because of this, all of them are consigned to eternal torment. However, one of the angels strikes a deal with God, allowing one-third of them to stay on Earth for a time in order to corrupt humanity. In the end though, all the rebellious angels, Satan included, will be cast into hell to be burned for all eternity.
What is interesting is that this story isn’t even a “biblical” one (unless you are Ethiopian Orthodox). You see, it comes from the book of Enoch, most specifically what is known as the book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 6–36). And yet, most of the Christianity I have experienced believes that the origins of evil come directly from this noncanonical tale. This is perplexing, so I would like to now offer an alternative to the “common” fallen angel myth, one that is more anthropological than theological. To do this, we’ll begin by turning back to the book of Job.
The Satan as Human Community
Notice that after the first two chapters of Job, the mythological character named “Satan” vanishes. This is important because it means that for the next thirty-five chapters of the book, the principle of accusation will rest on the shoulders of humanity.
Here’s how it all goes down.
After a host of terrible events befall the chief character, the community, intentions no doubt good, goes to work, clamoring on and on about how Job’s illnesses and misfortunes are self-inflicted. Eliphaz warns that “those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:7–8); Bildad reminds Job God will not “take the hand of evildoers” (Job 8:20); while Zophar implies that everything is Job’s fault when he tells Job to “not let wickedness reside in your tents” (Job 11:14–15). Then, as the poems progress, the satanic momentum builds, and some even go so far as to create blatant falsities in order to condemn Job: that he takes clothing from the naked, that he has withheld water from the thirsty and bread from the hungry, and that he has turned away widows and crushed the arms of orphans (Job 22:6–7, 9).
The wicked truth about human community is that, even if our intentions start out as pure, we just can’t help but devour our own. The book of Job testifies to this, even if it includes a bit of mythology in its prologue and epilogue. It testifies to the fact that when a community—indeed even so-called friends—turns against one of their own, they collectively become something more than the sum of their parts. In Job’s story, each accuser is making individual charges, but the truth is that they are all a part of a larger whole that is being guided by what the writer, working within a particular historical context, can only call “Satan.” In other words, as all the accusers come together as one, over against the “other,” a mimetic monster is created, one that cannot help but demonize and devour Job, it’s wretched scapegoat.
The Satan as Twisted Desire
This human-centric understanding of evil is not only seen in Job 3–37, but also in the second creation story from the book of Genesis. Like the book of Job, there are mythological elements, one of which comes in the form of a talking serpent. This serpent, however, is obviously allegorical (snakes don’t talk, do they?).
As I’ve discussed before, human beings are imitative creatures. Our desires, rather than being instinctually fixed on predetermined objects, are picked up from the desires of others. There is beauty in this, but also great risk. When we desire what the other desires, we tend to get into rivalries for our shared objects of desire. Hence, as we go along in our lives, it becomes painfully obvious that certain prohibitions must be placed in order to quell the violence that will inevitably arise. The prohibition of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a perfect example of this. In our quest to be just like God, to know all that is good and evil, we end up cannibalizing each other. And so, having this knowledge must be prohibited in order for us to have a chance to live in peace.
The problem, then, is that when something is prohibited, our desire for it grows ever stronger. One could say that prohibitions twist our desire, that they corrupt it. This is what the crafty serpent represents. Notice the corruption in the very first question asked of Eve: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Gen 3:1) As we know, that is not what God said. There is only one prohibited tree, not many. This is a trap. Sure, Eve initially corrects the serpent, but she then imitates it by making up her own lie. It’s subtle, but it’s there, plain as day. She answers: “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die” (Gen 3:3, emphasis mine). So, what began with one prohibition has now been twisted into two.
Initially, however, nothing happens to Eve. It is only after the man—who was there with her the whole time—eats of the fruit that both of their eyes are opened. This suggests that all three of the characters—the serpent, Eve, and Adam—are connected in a certain way. Michael Hardin points out that: “All of this literarily suggests that the man, the woman and the serpent are one big figure of the process of mediated desire and its consequences.” What are these consequences? Initially, accusations and scapegoating: the man blames both God and the woman (Gen 3:12), then the woman follows by turning it back onto the serpent (Gen 3:13).
The story goes on, and more consequences follow. What begins with a lie in chapter 3 quickly turns into a murder in chapter 4. In his grasping for God’s blessing, Cain kills Abel. Brother rises up against brother. Then, Cain founds a city; civilization built upon blood. From there, violence escalates until the whole world is corrupt and full of wickedness.
Consider that this is what is what is meant when Jesus calls the satan a “liar and a murderer from the beginning.” Satan is not some fallen angel who at one point was God’s consigliere. Satan is and always has been pure evil. The scary part, however, is that the satan is a part of us. That is to say, the satan has its ontology in humanity. We are the ones who engage in lies (Gen 3). We are the ones who found our cultures and civilizations on murder (Gen 4). We are the ones who accuse and scapegoat others when their lives end up in ruin (the poems from Job). And we are the ones who have been doing this ever since. It seems that this is what Jesus is getting at in Luke 11:49–51:
You are witnesses and approve the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,” so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.
What I want to emphasize is that while the satan is human, it is always more than about each individual. As I’ve said, it is more than the sum of its parts. It is a power and a force that seems to take on a life of its own, any time a group comes together in condemnation of an “other.” Paul’s phrase “the Powers and Principalities” seems like an apt way of describing it. Indeed, it is a Power and Principality, and it is very real. And, as my friend Brad Jersak points out in the Beyond the Box Podcast, it is much worse than we tend to think.
Yet, regardless if one finds my ontology of satan convincing or not, what we all should agree on is that the satan is a power that has been defeated by Christ. That’s the promise of the New Testament. Does the satanic mechanism of accusing, scapegoating, and blaming continue? Of course. We live between the now and the not yet. This age hasn’t passed on to the next; but it will, because we know at the end of all things, God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28). In the meantime, whether we believe the satan is a dark lord with his own ontology, or whether we believe the satan is an allegory for a dark power or principle, we who live in the Spirit live a life void of accusations. We live a life oriented toward Love and Justice, and do our damnedest to bring more of both into a world so torn up by the satan.